Growing Food in Philadelphia

Zoning Laws for Urban Farming & Community Gardening

Cities and regions have widely variable zoning, code, and permit requirements for community gardens and urban farms. While some places seem to lack any kind of restrictions, other areas are infamous for outlawing necessary garden structures, such as compost bins. Whatever the requirements, it helps to understand the regulations specific to your locale.

Zoning is a set of regulations that govern what can be built where, and what particle pieces of property can be used for. For example, zoning codes may prohibit an industrial site in a residential neighborhood, or a single-family home on a downtown commercial street. Zoning is primarily done by categorizing land as a specific category, like residential, commercial, or open space. Within those categories, there are smaller sub-categories–for example, single family residential zones that would prohibit multi-story apartment buildings. Zoning in Philadelphia is enforced by the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I).

For more detailed information about zoning laws in Philadelphia, see L&I’s website about zoning. For an explanation of how to get involved in the zoning process in general, check out this article from Billy Penn.

Philadelphia’s Zoning Code recognizes Urban Agriculture as a potential land use category in Philadelphia. This is important because dealing with zoning restrictions is potentially much easier.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PHILADELPHIA ZONING

Types of Urban Agriculture

Philadelphia law recognizes four different types of urban agriculture, which are allowed (or prohibited) in different zoning categories. In some areas, some types of urban agriculture are are only allowed with specific permits.

Find your garden’s zoning category here: https://atlas.phila.gov/

1) Community Garden:

a garden managed and maintained by a group of individuals. The main purpose of this type of plot is to grow food for the people who maintain it, not to sell food for profit. However, occasional sales of surplus food are allowed. This type of garden can be located on a roof or within a building.

  • Allowed in: Residential areas, mixed residential/ commercial areas, mixed residential/industrial areas, in institutional areas, entertainment areas, stadiums, and by airports.
  • NOT allowed in: A port industrial district (a wharf, dock, pier or other areas meant for marine-industrial use), or a district designated for recreational parks or open spaces by the city.

2) Market or Community-Supported Farm:

a farm that is maintained by an individual or group with the purpose of growing food for sale. This can also be located on a roof or within a building.

  • Allowed in: Most residential areas, most mixed residential/commercial areas, mixed residential/industrial areas, and near airports.
  • Not allowed in: Center City Commercial Districts (high density commercial and retail districts in the heart of center city), high density industrial districts (places where there is petroleum or chemical processing, storage, etc.), an industrial port (a wharf, dock, pier or other areas meant for marine-industrial use), any area designated for stadiums or entertainment (theatres, casinos, etc.), or districts designated for recreational parks or open spaces by the city.
  • A special exception permit is required for a Market or Community-Supported Farm in:
    • Residential districts zoned for single-family detached homes.
    • Institutional districts (universities, research facilities, etc.)

3) Horticulture Nurseries and Greenhouses:

  • propagation and growth of plants in containers or in the ground for wholesale sales and distribution. 

4) Animal Husbandry:

  • Feeding, housing, and care of farm animals for private or commercial purposes, subject to applicable Philadelphia code and regulations on farm animals. This is subject to severe restrictions. Regulations only allow farm animals on parcels of property of 3 or more acres.
  • Allowed in: Some industrial districts
  • NOT allowed in: A mixed industrial/residential district or a port industrial district.
  • Note on Farm Animal Restrictions
  • Severe restrictions on keeping farm animals were imposed by City Council in 2004.
  • The current law provides that farm animals can only be kept:
  • At a slaughterhouse,
    • If the animal was purchased to be killed for food and is kept for no more than 24 hours,
    • At a zoo,
    • At a veterinary hospital or clinic,
    • At an animal shelter,
    • At a circus,
    • At a school or a lab, or
    • On property with more than three acres, if the farm animal is not a pig.
    • In the Code, “farm animal” includes chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, cows, and other farm animals considered smelly or noisy.
    • Many residents would like the law changed to allow keeping chickens, in particular, outside of these specified areas.  For more information, see Title 10 of the Philadelphia Code

Other Requirements for Community Gardens or Market Farms:

You must make sure your water and fertilizer do not drain into adjacent lots

  • Refuse and compost bins must be rodent resistant and located as far as possible from any residences.
  • Refuse must be taken out at least once a week.
  • Storage areas for tools and other equipment must be enclosed and located as far away as possible from any residences. A zoning and building permit will be required for accessory storage structures.
  • No work involving power equipment or generators between sunset and sunrise.
  • Any food sold must be sold on the lot where it was grown or at an approved food retail site.

There are requirements governing when you may erect a fence and what type of fence may be erected in a Community Garden. A zoning permit will be required. Be sure to reference zoning requirements before building a fence. For more information on building in your garden, farm or open space, see our page on building permits.

Are you planning to start a community garden or market farm? See gardening pathways in Philadelphia.

APPLYING FOR A ZONING AND USE REGISTRATION PERMIT

Do I Need a Zoning Permit?

You only need a use registration permit if:

  • You own the property, or are officially leasing it from either the city or a private owner, AND
  • Your property is not designated for use as a single-family home or religious institution. Look up your garden’s zoning designation here.

If you do not lease or own the property, then you cannot apply for a use registration permit. Because problems with gardens can arise when neighbors don’t appreciate side effects of gardening, such as compost piles, you should ensure community cooperation if you do not own or lease the property. Make sure to be a good neighbor!

How to Apply for a Zoning and Use Registration Permit

Even though community gardening and market farming are allowed in most parts of the city, you still need to acquire a “use registration permit” from the City if your garden or farm is a new use or a change in the use of a parcel. This is a one-time permit with a fee of $125.  A copy of the application can be found here and the instructions provided by L&I can be found here. 

You can also go to the Municipal Services Building, Department of Licenses and Inspections, 1401 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Concourse Level or call 311 (215-686-8686) for assistance.

After You Have Submitted Your Zoning and Use Registration Permit:

  • An examiner from L&I will review the application to see if it complies with the Zoning Code and answer any questions.
  • L&I will notify the applicant of its decision within 20 business days. If the application is refused, a Notice of Refusal will be issued and an applicant may file a Petition of Appeal to the Zoning Board and request a variance within 30 days.
  • Within five business days of receiving the permit, the applicant must post a copy on the property in a way that is obvious to the public for at least 30 days.
  • For more information on the process, see: location and zoning information.

How to Appeal a Refusal:

If L&I issues a refusal of your zoning and use application and you wish to appeal, you must file an Application for Appeal or an Application for Special Exception with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  The refusal you receive will indicate which application you will need to file for your particular situation. Applications must be filed within 30 days of receiving a refusal.

For more information and an appeal application, see Zoning Appeals or visit the Boards Administration Unit, 1401 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Municipal Services Building- 11th Floor, 215-686-2429.

Remember, zoning is only the first step.  If you complete any construction, you may need a building permit as well.

Other Resources

To view the full Philadelphia Zoning Code, click here.

Zoning Archives contains copies of zoning applications for various addresses in Philadelphia.  It is often useful to review the archive for a particular property before submitting an application to determine what, if any, applications were previously accepted or denied.

More information on the current zoning code may be found at at Phila.gov.

This information is accurate as of 2013 when Grounded in Philly was first launched; however, some information may have changed since then. Although The Public Interest Law Center works to make sure the information on the website is accurate and up to date, and has fixed inaccuracies that have come to our attention, we make no claim as to the accuracy of all of this information. We recommend that you consult with a licensed attorney if you want assurance that the information on the website and your interpretation of it are appropriate for your particular situation. We are continuing to improve Grounded in Philly’s accuracy and usefulness.

If you see something on this page that appears to be inaccurate, please contact Jonathan McJunkin.

More resources for joining the urban agriculture community or buying local

About Neighborhood Gardens Trust

The Neighborhood Gardens Trust is a crucial resource for the preservation of gardens and community green space, providing a trust for public land in Philadelphia.

About Soil Generation

Soil Generation is a Black & Brown-led coalition of gardeners, farmers, individuals, and organizations working to ensure people of color regain community control of land and food.